Matthew and Acts

I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:

As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.

Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.

It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.

The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment, ┬ábut the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.

There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.

Review: The Koran, translated by N. J. Dawood

Reading the Koran is a bit like a trip into a religious Twilight Zone. Here we have a “prophet” (Muhammad) insisting that all accept his “revelation” from “God” and submit themselves to him. This “prophet,” however, rather frequently contradicts himself and, though he claims to be a line of continuity with the various prophets who came before him, contradicts these previous revelations as well. Even when he does, it seems, agree with the previous revelations, Muhammad’s “God” terribly muddles these revelations (as in the conflation of the stories of David, Saul, and Gideon in Surah 2), evincing roughly the same knowledge of them as would, say, an illiterate Arab merchant who was interested in biblical stories but not especially knowledgeable on religion.

Those who do not believe in Muhammad’s “revelations,” says the Koran, will suffer horrible torments in “the Fire” of Hell while God, the angels, and those in Paradise hurl insults and mockery at them. “God,” however, refuses to provide any of even the slightest evidence why anyone should believe in his “revelations,” even while providing a great deal of evidence (contradictions and muddling previously mentioned) against said “revelations.”

Even more disturbing is that none of this matters in the least anyway because this “God” is in absolute and total control. Everything is subject to an arbitrary Will of God who insists (ad nauseam) that he is “forgiving” and “merciful” while gleefully condemning the vast majority of mankind to an eternity of torture. As the Koran insists over and over, it is God who has determined already who will go to Paradise and who will go to Hell, and he so guides each set of people throughout their lives. This is a truly terrifying vision of a world turned upside down.

In the end, I am forced by my own reading of the Koran to conclude, as did the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos, that if you “show me just what Muhammad brought that was new … there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” There is nothing original in the Koran aside from a vision of a sadist “God” who looks forward with eager anticipation to the time when he can dump the vast majority of his rational creatures into a burning bit. Everything that is of value in Muhammad’s teachings is derived from Judaism and from Christianity. To be honest, it is difficult to understand how this book became the civilization-creating monument that it did indeed become.

Hell and Christian moral consciousness

Man’s moral will ought never to aim at relegating any creature to hell or to demand this in the name of justice. It may be possible to admit hell for oneself, because it has a subjective and not an objective existence. I may experience the torments of hell and believe that I deserve them. But it is impossible to admit hell for others or to be reconciled to it, if only because hell cannot be objectified and conceived as a real order of being. It is hard to understand the psychology of pious Christians who calmly accept the fact that their neighbors, friends and relatives will perhaps be damned. I cannot resign myself to the fact that the man with whom I am drinking tea is doomed to eternal torments. If people were morally more sensitive they would direct the whole of their moral will and spirit towards delivering from the torments of hell every being they had ever met in life. It is a mistake to think that this is what people do when they help to develop other men’s moral virtues and to strengthen them in the true faith. The true moral change is a change of attitude towards the “wicked” and the doomed, a desire that they too should be saved, i.e. acceptance of their fate for oneself, and readiness to share it. This implies that I cannot seek salvation individually, by my solitary self, and make my way into the Kingdom of God relying on my own merits. Such an interpretation of salvation destroys the unity of the cosmos. Paradise is impossible for me if the people I love, my friends or relatives or mere acquaintances, will be in hell — if Boehme is in hell as a “heretic,” Nietzsche as “an antichrist,” Goethe as a “pagan” and Pushkin as a sinner. Roman Catholis who cannot take a step in their theology without Aristotle are ready to admit with perfect complacency that, not being a Christian, Aristotle is burning in hell. All this kind of thing has become impossible for us, and that is a tremendous moral progress. If I owe so much to Aristotle or Nietzsche I must share their fate, take their torments upon myself and free them from hell. Moral consciousness began with God’s question, “Cain, where is thy brother Abel?” It will end with another question on the part of God: “Abel, where is thy brother Cain?”

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, pp. 276-7